Growing Sweet Potatoes

How to Grow Sweet Potatoes

I know, I know…..

No one is gardening right now.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeell, my sweet potato patch turned out to be behind schedule, but a roaring success, so you get to read all about it in…… November.

I figured you’d want to know how I did it so you can eat sweet potatoes with every meal next fall.

I now know why sweet potatoes adorn every Thanksgiving table on the planet.  Those of us who stuck the tiny sprigs (slips) into the ground back in July now have sweet potatoes coming out our ears….. so we are serving them, taking them, giving them and cooking them like mad-people.  This is why you will all be eating orange potatoes later this week.

Sweet potatoes are stupid easy to grow.

I bought my sweet potato starter sprouts (called slips) at the local hardware store.  I know, weird?   We live in a tiny town.  When your town is really small, hardware store become “department stores” in no time.  They sell random items like toys, purses and baby sweet potatoes.  Nobody else is selling it, so they do.  And us country folk are ever grateful.

Anyhow… if you’ll remember, I was starving myself this summer and only eating foods I raised (or picked, or killed, or foraged, etc).

I was living on a horrid diet of turnips, turnip greens, radishes, and kale (among a handful of other things) for the first couple of weeks of the Challenge.  It was early June and the garden was just getting going.  Between the limited food possibilities and carb/sugar detox I was going through (without hospitalization or a support group, mind you)…. I was pretty sure I was dying.  It was no way to live.

Once the potatoes were big enough to dig up and be food  I we consumed them at an unheard of pace.  When you are living on radishes and turnips, being handed a potato is like arriving at the promised land.  I was living high on the hog and the world was my oyster.  Due to my rapid potato consumption, my potato crop soon became “WAY TO SMALL.”  I planted a lot of potatoes, but they were never going to last another 8 weeks, and I was positioned to have no potatoes from the garden for winter storage.  I went on a search for some seed potatoes so I could get a second crop in the ground before summer was over….. to no avail.  I couldn’t find seed potatoes anywhere midsummer.  BUT I found sweet potatoes.  LOTS of sweet potatoes.

My friend (who owns the hardware store) has some sad, homeless, water-craving, sweet potatoes outside the front of her hardware store for $5 each. Each 8 inch pot had 25 plants in it.  25 parched, half-dead plants for 5 bucks.  I figured, I may end up killing them all anyhow, what did I have to lose?

I bought a $5 pot of Beauregard Sweet Potato slips and took them home.

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In no time my thirsty sprigs were growing new leaves and filling out.

Although I don’t really like sweet potatoes, they are better than radishes and turnips.  I still had a couple of months until the end of the 100 day challenge and the potatoes I had in the ground would never last.  Sweet potatoes can’t be that bad if I cook them right…. right?

What I didn’t know was that it takes a sweet potato a long time to become a sweet potato.  It was about 4 months in my garden.

I did not eat one single sweet spud during the 100 day Homesteaders Food Challenge.  Not one.  I did dig a couple up near the last stretch hoping for some starch; but I was disappointed by a couple of pink potatoes the size of my big toe.  It wasn’t worth it to dig them up just to eat a few toes.  So, I left them in the ground.

Like all good homesteaders, I put off digging up the sweet potatoes as long as possible.

Once the 100 day experiment (Food Challenge) ended – I could shop at stores again and buy normal potatoes again and eat again.  There was no driving motivation to dig up the orange tubers.  After all, I don’t even like sweet potatoes.  And digging up potatoes is a pain.  If any one tells you that digging up the potatoes is the best part of growing potatoes they are liars.  It is not the best part.  I do my best to procrastinate, delegate and bribe my children to dig up potatoes so I don’t have to.

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The first frost just nipped the tops of the vines…

Well, the day came and the vines were destroyed in one night by a horrid, freezing frost.  The days were only getting shorter and colder.  It was either dig like the wind or donate the tubers to mother earth in the name of compost.

Dig We Must!

The more I think about it, the more I have decided that Thanksgiving week is the perfect time to teach people how to grow sweet potatoes.  It will give you insight into that marshmallow covered dish you’re eating on Thursday that people somehow can pass off as a “side” instead of a dessert.  No, I don’t eat it – but I don’t like sweet potatoes, so it’s not much of a sacrifice.

How to Grow Sweet Potatoes:

ONE:  Get some seedlings.  

Late spring/ early summer is the time to plant sweet potatoes.  Regular potatoes (the kind you bake) like cool weather and are planted in early spring- not sweet potatoes.  They like it hot.  You can plant sweet potatoes all summer long & they will love the heat.

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It’s peculiar.  Potato potatoes (the white ones) are sold as “seed” potatoes.  You buy some, you chop them into chunks & you plant them underground.  The chunks grow stems and leaves out from the eyes & you have potato plants.  To learn how to grow potatoes go here.

Sweet potatoes are a different animal entirely.  They are sold as a seedling called slips.  They are more like a couple leaves with a tiny pink root than anything else.  If you have ever put “sweet potato vine” in a flower pot you know what a baby sweet potato plant looks like.  I planted 25 slips in my garden.  So, it was a little weird for me.  Sweet potatoes have been in my landscaping for 15 years – never in my garden.  I am 100% positive that the variety I put in my flower pots is NOT the ones I planted in my garden.  If they were, my pots would have exploded by September.

Once you find your sweet potato seedlings, just take them home & plant them.  As far as spacing goes….. I have raised beds, which means I can cram a LOT more plants into a given space than I would be able to in a row garden.  My plants can go deeeeeeeeeeep so I can plant them fairly close together.

I planted 2 beds of sweet potatoes with dreams of frying sweet potato chips, baking some, mashing some into casseroles and even making some sweet potato french fries.  Yes, I was going to eat A LOT of sweet potatoes. I like starch.

These dreams haven’t come true (yet) because my sweet potatoes took 4 months to turn into sweet potatoes.

I planted my little seedlings in 2 beds.

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Here’s the first (above).  The plants were allowed to spread everywhere and take over the 4 surrounding beds.  Grrrrr.  Sweet potatoes know no boundaries.  They will not be contained, corralled, kept in, or managed.  They go where they want.

TWO:  Give them something to climb (if possible).

The second bed I stuck sweet potatoes in (thankfully) had a trellis.

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In this bed all the flowing vines had somewhere to go.  I am pretty sure I will never get all the sweet potato vines untangled from this trellis unless I toss it into a fire.

THREE:  Weeding.

The great thing about sweet potatoes is that you will only have to weed the bed once.  The vines take over so quickly and so thoroughly that the ground under the plants never sees the light of day once they get going.

My sweet potatoes grew and grew and attempted to take over the universe.  In late summer they blossomed the prettiest flowers you’ve ever seen.   This was the point when I tried to dig up a few spuds for my plate, only to find toes.  Disappointed, I left the toes in the ground to grow into something more substantial & I did something else.

FOUR:  Dig them up.

The nice thing about potatoes in general is you can dig some up whenever you get hungry.  I did it all summer long.  Dig up however many you want to eat and leave the rest in the ground to continue “baking” in the garden.  The longer you leave them in the ground, the bigger they get.

3 Things to consider before you leave your potatoes in the ground for extended periods of time:

  1. Get them out of the ground before a hard frost destroys them.
  2. Don’t let them rot.  If you live in a really, really wet area you do stand the possibility of your potatoes rotting in the moist ground.  If I was having a crazy wet fall, I would probably dig my taters up to prevent rotting.
  3. If you don’t dig them all up, you will be growing potatoes in that spot for the next 5+ years.  They will re-seed, grow stems, tops and make zillions more taters for you.

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After the frost killed all my vines I figured it was now or never.  I had to get in there and do some digging.  We could see some pink spuds peeking out from under the ground & figured there may be some decent potatoes under there……

but we were not prepared for the harvest.

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I destroyed at least half of the harvest trying to dig the monsters out of the ground.  There was simply NO WHERE I could shove my potato fork in and not hit a potato.  They were everywhere.  Under that top layer of soil and leaves was 12 inches of pure sweet potato.  Nothing else.  No dirt.  No worms.  No roots.  Nothing but potatoes.  I literally couldn’t get my shovel, fork or tool into the earth without impaling a spud.

The good news is that there were hundreds of them so it didn’t matter that I decapitated half of them.

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It took 2 days to dig all the stinkin’ things up.  And, have I mentioned that I don’t like sweet potatoes?  The fact that they are everywhere, impossible to miss with a fork and took 2 days to dig up is not helping my fondness of them.

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Glorious Sweet Potatoes!  If you like to eat them – you should grow them!!!  They are amazing.  They grew with vigor.  The vines & leaves were robust and invincible.  The leaves, the stems, the trellis was covered.  The sweet potatoes were stunning, especially when they were covered with purple and white flowers.  And the harvest was undeniable.  I got more than my $5 worth of potatoes.

FIVE:  Cure.

Once I (with the help of a couple fabulous kids) got them all out of the ground it was time to cure them.

Curing is simply letting a veggie or root dry out before moving it to long term storage.  I do this with garlic and onions and other potatoes.  If you take a damp, moist potato and stick it in a container in storage there is a good chance you will have a rotten stinky mess in your basement.  Curing (drying) them will help them to store nicely and not rot.

You do not want to skip this step.

When the sweet potatoes are first dug, they are hardly sweet at all.  Curing them sweetens them.  It also increases nutrition and heals any nicks & scrapes (yes, I butchered most of my potatoes during the digging).

The ideal curing scenario is between 80 & 90 degrees and dry.

First, dust off any dirt and soil.  Then lay out your spuds in a single layer.  Now just leave them in a warm dry place for about 10 days.  (Recommended curing time for sweet potatoes is 10 days)

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I use my garage or barn for curing, depending on which one is most convenient and has available space.  I’m not picky.  It just needs to be dry and have decent air flow.

SIX:  Move to long term storage.

I let mine hang out and dry for a couple weeks & then moved them to long term storage (bushels in my basement).

We now have more sweet potatoes than we know what to do with.

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Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

XO,

Candi

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